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Morning Brief: Losing a Significant ‘Safe Haven’ in LA’s Black Community

James Fugate
James Fugate, a co-owner of Eso Won, is closing the beloved Black safe haven bookstore after more than 33 years.
(Aaricka Washington/LAist )
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Good morning, L.A. It’s Thursday, June 16.

I’m not the only one who is in complete shock that my beloved Eso Won Books is closing its doors. It’s been in L.A. for more than 33 years - more than a decade of that time in the Black cultural haven of Leimert Park. For many, it’s been a safe haven, a home in an area that, like many others, isquickly being gentrified.

“I’m very sad to hear that they are leaving, concerned and sad,” says nearby resident Tia Lopez. “It was inspiring that they gave books about culture, about self-history, about things that other bookstores and libraries don’t have.” 

Tia Lopez, who’s from Crenshaw, says she grew up in this neighborhood since she was 5 years old. Lopez, the founder of Crenshaw Entrepreneurial Academy, says Eso Won owners donated school books to her students. “I feel like we’re losing a lot of landmarks,” Lopez says, on the verge of tears.

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I met Lopez yesterday while visiting the bookstore with LAist intern Armaní Washington. We wanted to find out more about why this literary institution was closing. Within the first hour, the crowd in the store more than doubled, from four people to nine. The customers, too, wanted to know what was going on. Some of them were just hearing about the closing. 

Stanley Lumax, a Brooklynite and owner of Teranga, a West African restaurant in New York City, says he makes sure to stop by Eso Won Books when he comes to visit his friends in L.A., sometimes spending $200 at a time. He says he’s found books he couldn’t find elsewhere. “I don’t even live here, and I’m bummed that it’s closing,” Lumax says. “It’s a jewel of this community.” 

Eso Won got a lot of recognition after the murder of George Floyd, and the unrest that followed, as a place you could go to find books about Black lives. But well before that, I knew it was a place I could discover new things written for and by Black people. I used to go to the store every Christmas season to find books for my nieces – books that would make them proud of their skin color and their heritage. Barack Obama had his Dreams of My Father book signing there in 1995 when no one really knew who he was. He returned to the store, far more famous, 10 years later. And proud Inglewood actress and producer Issa Rae filmed her hit show Insecure there and held a book signing for Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. The list of Eso Won fans is long and strong.

Dr. Saundra Russell-Smith, a school principal visiting from Chicago, says that she saw an interview with Issa Rae and one of the owners and knew she had to come out here to be a part of this community, even for just a few minutes.

“I got here just in time,” Russell-Smith says. “It’s another magnificent space for the stories of black folks to get told that will no longer be around for generations to come, just a sad day, but I get it.”

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So why close? Co-owner James Fugate says he and his partner Tom Hamilton are just ready to end it. They’ve been in the business a long time, and Fugate told Publisher’s Weekly they’ve not had a vacation in two years. 

Fugate told me they don’t have plans to sell it to anyone, but people are talking to him and Hamilton about it, and they’re open to the idea. Though he and Hamilton are ready to close up shop, Fugate does have some concerns about letting it go. Will people be able to find all the books they seek? 

“Everybody would have Barack Obama’s and Michelle Obama’s. Everybody will have books on the Underground Railroad,” he says. “But will they have Kelly Lytle Hernandez’s new book Bad Mexicans, or Lightseekers, which is a novel set in Africa and one of the best suspense novels I’ve read. Will they have those types of books so that people could always find them?” 

As always, I hope you stay happy and healthy, folks. There’s more news below the fold.

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What Else You Need To Know Today

  • Outreach workers on the frontlines helping L.A.’s unhoused population are stressed out and exhausted. Despite helping some 80,000 people get housing since 2020, more continue to fall into homelessness. It seems like a never-ending cycle. “You see a lot of trauma out there,” says one supervisor for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
  • California Legislators want to help you buy a house. Lawmakers are proposing a billion-dollar fund in this year’s budget that would help first-time buyers secure enough money for a down payment, in exchange for partial ownership. Currently, the rate of home ownership in California in 56% - the second lowest in the nation behind New York
  • The House of Representatives passed a massive $1.3 spending bill aimed at protecting endangered species. It’s needed, scientists say, because while the Endangered Species Act defines and protects, it does not provide the funding needed to help these species maintain their population. 
  • How do you like your coffee, L.A.? Cause you can get it pretty much any way you want it… in almost every neighborhood. Still stuck on where to go? You’re in luck. We have a handy guide of favorite places  - several of them recommended by our audience. 
  • Looking ahead to the weekend already? We do have a holiday coming up! If grilling up some food in your yard, or on your deck, sounds like heaven, we have some tips for you.

Before You Go...E-Bikes Are Coming Pacoima

Two rows of bright red electric bikes are placed on pavement in front of a large box truck where more bike are being unloaded.
The Electro-Bici program received 100 refurbished electric bikes from the New York-based Shared Mobility Inc., which has provided "e-bike libraries" in several U.S cities.
(Courtesy Pacoima Beautiful)

Do you live in the Northeast San Fernando Valley? Well, you now have access to free e-bikes. The goal is to create more mobility options in a community that’s been left out of previous scooter and e-bike crazes, and to reduce the spread of air pollution in the community by getting people out of their cars. Pacoima residents have long suffered from dangerous air pollution, even by L.A. standards.

Initially, about 30 bikes will be available under the Electro-Bici program. It’ll act like a “bike library,” lending e-bikes long-term to residents in Pacoima and neighboring communities. Residents who join the program can keep the bikes for up to nine months. Additionally, riders will have the option to charge their bikes in a centralized location.

The organizers of the program, People for Mobility Justice, hope to also “spark conversations with city and county transportation agencies about improving infrastructure,” like bike lanes, in the area.

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